The New York Times

Organic food has become a very big business, with a 20 percent annual growth rate in sales in recent years. But popularity has come at a price. Ever since 2002, when the Department of Agriculture began its program of national organic certification, there has been a steady lobbying effort to weaken standards in a way that makes it easier for the giant food companies, which often use synthetic substances in processing, to enter the organic market.

That’s exactly why many organic farmers greeted the U.S.D.A.’s organic seal with real trepidation. They know that the one thing the department has always done especially well is to capitulate to the lobbying pressure of big food and big agriculture.

Last week, an amendment was slipped into the agricultural spending bill without meaningful debate in a closed-door Republican meeting. It would do two things. It would overturn a court decision reinstating the old legal standard that prohibits synthetic substances in organic foods. And it would allow the agriculture secretary to approve synthetic substances if no organic substitute was commercially available.

In part, this is a battle over a label. The big producers, which often use synthetic materials in processing, want to call their processed foods organic because that designation commands premium prices. They do not want to say their products are made with organic ingredients – a lesser designation that allows more synthetics. This is also a cultural battle, a struggle between the people who have long kept the organic faith – despite the historic neglect of the U.S.D.A. – and industry giants that see a rapidly expanding and highly profitable niche that can be pried open even further with lobbying.

“Organic” is not merely a label, a variable seal of approval at the end of the processing chain. It means a way of raising crops and livestock that is better for the soil, the animals, the farmers and the consumers themselves – a radical change, in other words, from conventional agriculture. Unless consumers can be certain that those standards are strictly upheld, “organic” will become meaningless.

Copyright 2005 · The New York Times Company

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